Make-or-break contract years

Asdrubal Cabrera has to show that he can return to his 2011 form if he wants a big payday. AP Photo/Jim Mone

What's the most fun part of any baseball offseason? Free-agent signings, of course. How much longer and colder would this winter have felt if we couldn't have bandied around theories and predictions for where Robinson Cano, Shin-Soo Choo, and Jacoby Ellsbury would end up, then judge the impact they'll have after they signed?

Of course, those players are only interesting now because they're coming off big seasons, since a poorly timed down season can kill a free agent's value. For example, a season ago, Chris Perez was coming off his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance and a career-high 39 saves. Yet after a 2013 that saw him post career worsts in ERA, FIP, and WAR --while losing his closer's job in September -- he was forced to settle for a mere $2.3 million guaranteed to work in middle relief for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With no-doubter stars like Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez no longer a part of next winter's market due to contract extensions, we're going to be seeing a lot of second-level guys who need to make a huge splash in 2014 if they hope to land huge contracts. Here's a look at four players who need to excel to avoid being the next Perez.


Chase Headley, 3B | San Diego Padres

In 2011, Headley had a perfectly fine season, contributing 2.3 WAR to the Padres but doing so with only four homers. In 2012, he exploded, crushing 31 homers while playing good defense and ranking behind only David Wright among all third basemen with 7.2 WAR. Then, in 2013, slowed by a broken thumb and a sore knee that eventually required surgery, he put up a .250/.347/.400 line that was his worst of the previous three seasons.

As Headley enters his age-30 season, he's going to have to do more than ignore the never-ending trade scenarios that swirl around him. He's going to have to prove he can stay healthy and be consistent, because, at the moment, anyone interested in him can't be sure which Headley they're going to get.